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elix Mendelssohn’s visits to Britain throughout the early nineteenth century allowed him to create a name for himself while contributing to the burgeoning musical culture that was to blossom throughout the Victorian period. His initial visits with the British aristocracy established himself with the English public and allowed him to to premiere new works that dazzled British audiences with his musicality. Harold Schonberg notes that Mendelssohn’s musical style made him so popular among early Victorians, since

listeners, disturbed by the wild dissonances of the other Romantics, were able to sit back and relax with Mendelssohn’s music…What put it miles above th[e] music [of other popular composers, such as Hummel]…was the peculiarly Mendelssohnian grace and elegance it displayed, and its clear-cut construction. Later generations would find that kind of perfect boring, would find Mendelssohn’s melodies cloying and his rhythms too regular and predictable…[T]he first half of the nineteenth century regarded Mendelssohn as close to divine. Especially in England his influence held strong throughout the century, dominating the entire British school. Mendelssohn loved England from the moment he first arrived in London. [219-20]

The interest in restraint and respectability that dominated Victorian conversations on social class likewise appeared in the national debates on music, as the composer’s influence, like that of Beethoven on the Continent, influenced musical styles, forms, and tastes throughout the century. Mendelssohn’s performances and compositional debuts, which led a nation once considered without music to find its musical voice, coincided with the 1840s rise of the English Musical Renaissance, the period of robust British musical composition and performance during which the nation found its musical voice and performance institutions. The composer’s social activities, as well as his performances, contributed to creating the musical culture that fostered the English Musical Renaissance and the place of classical music in Victorian England throughout the remainder of the century.

Mendelssohn’s early visits to England, during which he socialized with the British aristocracy, allowed him to create a social network that has a major effect upon the country’s performance institutions. His visits in the 1830s and 1840s coincided with an emerging musical performance culture often considered as a national musical revival that musicologists have named “the Musical Renaissance” (Burton 214-15). Although the Mendelssohnian fad of the early nineteenth century ended, home-grown English composers attempted to find a national voice, drawing upon his influence, which dominated aesthetics in the earliest stages of the English Musical Reniassance.

Mendelssohn's letters, which detail the place and condition of music in the early Victorian period, provide a window into the social role and status of music among Britain's aristocracy. In a letter to his father on 1 May 1829, Mendelssohn writes that "you would not be all that fascinated to learn where I was yesterday (at Count Münster's), or where I will be on Tuesday (at Count Bülow's), or on Sunday (at Goldsmith's, where Mühlenfels is to introduce me)...But the worst thing is that I was asked to go to the Duke of Devonshire's ball tonight, and cannot go on account of some complications too long to explain to you. . . " (1 May 1829 60-61). Mendelssohn's letter presents him as an aristocrat among the Victorian elite, for he notes — boasts about? — his audience with Georg Herbert Münster and Count Hans von Bülow, both, like Mendelssohn himself, German diplomatic transplants visiting England. It is worth noting that Mendelssohn’s British hosts explicitly attempted to make the young composer feel at home by introducing him to his fellow Continental visitors. In his special evenings and entertainments, music plays the social role, providing the background, and in some instances, the impetus for the evening's social gatherings. In his accounts, the musician provides insight into the private music-making activities that were to define middle- and upper-class refinement throughout the Victorian period, such as the ball at the Duke of Devonshire's that he was unfortunate to miss; however, Mendelssohn also provides details about the public concerts and the burgeoning nineteenth-century performance institutions. The composer's personal anecdotes among Britain's social elite shed light on how the composer used his influence on his visits to gain the support of the aristocracy, which would then transfer to his popularity within the British populace on the concert stage.

Full of personal illustrations of the private life of the landed gentry of Victorian England, Mendelssohn's letters during his time abroad shed light on the public performance institutions of the country. For example, in the letter his father on 1 May 1829, he writes that

Monday night was the Philharmonic concert. The orchestra is outstanding, full of fire and strength, and the basses [sic] and violins in particular play quite splendidly...The overture to the Magic Flute and the finale of a Haydn symphony were encored, that is, called forth da capo. The public's attention is concentrated exclusively on the instrumental pieces for the whole orchestra, so here would be the best, or rather the only good, opportunity of having my Midsummer Night's Dream performed. [63]

Attending his first public concert, the composer found himself impressed enough with the quality of the performance to think of programming his own music for British audiences. The importance of the letter of May 1 is that Mendelssohn not only notes the popularity of instrumental music in England in the early decades of the nineteenth century but sees the potential for a British national musical. He is quick to note the audience's interest in the Mozart and Haydn selections, to the point where an encore is demanded and rewarded, and he assumes that such popularity would likewise spill over into his own compositional offerings as he plans to dazzle the concert-going public with his own overture. The implication of Mendelssohn’s compositional offering suggests that the composer felt that by programming his incidental music for England’s own Shakespeare, he would be as wholesomely welcomed as the Mozart and Haydn offerings of the evening. Regardless, the composer’s letter illustrates that instrumental musical performances held a semi-sacred place in the British public life. However, in a letter to Adolf Bernhardt Marx on 9 May 1829, the composer notes

There isn't much in the way of music here...The musicians are worse than ours, for there is more competition, and unlike the craftsmen this makes them not better, but more mistrustful and intriguing. In general they have everything that can be cultivated by external means, practice, money, formulas, and the like...but everything spiritual is lacking; there is no concertmaster, no tender oboes, clarinets, or bassoons, everything is rough and clumsy; no liveliness, but just speed, no respect for the work of art, in short no conductor. [67]

Contrary to the letter on 1 May, Mendelssohn's update on the condition of music in the British realm has changed, as he notes the training lacking in the country without its own national music and that the music that is popular in the English nation is altered to meet the tastes of the day. The composer becomes a critic, as he takes the British orchestra to task for lack of practice and diligence. However, there is a glimmer of hope, as in the same letter he writes that "they worship Beethoven and edit him, they worship Mozart and are bored with it, they worship Haydn and rush him to death. Music is a thing of fashion" (67). Though deriding the musical practices of the time, Mendelssohn points out the popular taste for Continental composers among British concert-goers, with the implication that he would be at home with audiences as well, but more importantly, the composer notes that instrumental music is as important an institution among the social circuit as theatre-going and private gatherings. The composer's critical appraisals quickly turn to performance plans, as the lays out his own vision for the place of music in nineteenth-century England.

In his letters, Mendelssohn details the musical evenings among England's social aristocracy, allowing him to cull and add to a performing tradition that was developing in the country throughout the period. In a letter to his father on 19 June 1829, he writes that

Wednesday I am playing Beethoven's E-flat concerto, to the horror of all the musicians—I've had my fill of tedious notes and must play the Beethoven again...The Covent Garden business is rolling right along; they have stipulated the most noble and advantageous conditions for me—that I should choose my own text, take it along and compose the music for it where and when I please, and if I finish the opera by December it's supposed to be performed in February. If I want to and am able, I am supposed to direct it myself, they are promising me the best possible cast; as for the honorarium from the theater, they have offered me the proceeds of one of the first performances, and the music publisher has consulted me about my stipulations for the piano reduction. [73]

Though paradoxically detailed and somewhat abstract, Mendelssohn’s letter notes the upcoming performance of the Beethoven Emperor concerto that he has planned. At the same time he turns to the practical side of the music-making business, mentioning that Covent Garden theatre has commissioned him to write an opera using a text of his choosing and making, as is clear, a substantial amount of money. These remarks, which provide insight into the business of music in the early nineteenth century, simultaneously remind one of Handel's reception throughout the Georgian era, as the German-born composer built a British reputation while creating a performance culture that eventually waned in the early part of the nineteenth century. The implications for Mendelssohn’s own British musical career thus run parallel to the references he makes in his letters. His comments about the business of music-making and the English performance institutions continue throughout his letters, as he notes in a letter to his father, once again, on 10 July 1829.

Everyone who has attracted the slightest attention this season will take part, most of them free of charge [in a series of concerts]; many offers from good performers have had to be turned down, since even as things are it will last until the following day. Klingemann is sending you the interminable program, it really is quite interesting. My overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream will open, by popular demand, then I'll play the Double Concerto in E with Moscheles. [emphasis in original 74]

As he lays out the program for the upcoming monster concert scheduled in July, Mendelssohn details the scheduled pieces to be played and notes that the concert is so popular that organizers have resorted to rejecting high-quality performers, and, as is his style, he modestly points out that his works have been scheduled, due to popular demand. The letter, which provides one of the first instances that Mendelssohn acknowledges his growing popularity among English audiences, also points to the growing demand for public music in the England. In the same letter, he provides a few insights in preparations for the performance.

Yesterday we held our first rehearsal at the Clementi factory, with Mme. Moscheles and Herr Collard listening, and I had a heavenly time of it, for no one had any notion of our coquetteries, and how we were constantly imitating one another, and how cute we were. Moscheles plays the last movement with tremendous brilliance, tossing the runs right off the cuff. When it was over everyone said it was such a shame that we hadn't played any cadenzas, so I at once dug up a place in the final tutti of the first movement where the orchestra has a fermata, and Moscheles was prevailed upon nolens volens to compose a big cadenza; we then tried to figure out, meanwhile making a thousand pranks, whether the last little solo...could be left as was, since people would no doubt applaud...The full orchestra rehearsal is set for tomorrow at two, and afterward I am planning some plaisir; in fact, I will be spending the afternoon and evening in Stamfordhill, a grassy village full of trees, gardens, and roses, with a Herr Richmond and his many daughters. [74-75]

Once again, the composer links his musical activities in England with the nation's social and economic elite, suggesting that much of Mendelssohn's success in the country was tied dually to his people and social skills as well as his musicianship. His notes on the rehearsal, on creating a cadenza for the triple concerto that would please the audience, illustrate the composer's intuitive musicianship, as the performers worked to create a presentation that was at once suitable and yet pleasing to the demanding social audiences of England's concert circuit while providing insight into the compositional process itself. When Mendelssohn was to return to England in 1832, in what was considered his Grand Tour, his letters are likewise full of behind-the-scenes references to the musical culture that was taking shape at the very dawn of the Victorian period, as his social calendar was expanded to include events with the Royal family. But the composer's letters from the Grand Tour also demonstrate the depth to his superstar stature in England as the century wore on.

In contrast to his earlier visits to England in the earlier part of the century, Mendelssohn’s monumental Grand Tour of the 1830s focused solely on musicality and performance. In a letter of 11 May 1832 written during the British leg of his trip, Mendelssohn tells his father not only about his own performances but also that the nation has developed a musical culture since his first visits in the 1820s. Dragged to a concert on Regent Street, he writes that

[I] met a couple of stunningly beautiful young English girls at the entrance, of whom I am quite fond, and who took me along to their box. Right away Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony began, which sounded pleasant too, and made for easy listening alongside the pretty children…Then, after the symphony, I wanted to go to the lobby in order to greet a few old friends. But no sooner had I arrived down there when someone called out from the orchestra: There is Mendelssohn, whereupon they all began yelling and clapping such that for a while I didn’t know what to do, and when it was over, another called out, Welcome to him, whereupon they struck up the same racket and I had to make my way through the hall and to the orchestra in order to take a bow. You see, I shall not forget that, for it was more dear to me than any other distinctions; it showed that the musicians are fond of me and were glad that I had come, and it was a happier moment for me than I can say. [183-84]

The composer’s anecdote from the performance is interesting in two aspects: it illustrates that during his absence from England, the quality of English performance practices had improved, as the composer notes his pleasure at the performance of Beethoven’s sixth symphony; the account likewise demonstrates the composer’s immense British popularity that had only increased while he was away. His personality and his relationships among the British aristocracy allowed Mendelssohn to be treated as a home-grown musical celebrity while his aesthetics and his performance practices gave him the mantle of Continental giant comparable to the likes of Beethoven among the public at large. Mendelssohn’s own reaction to his reception and celebrity status is touching, especially from a performer’s point of view, as it provides a surprisingly sentimental account of how he perceived himself in the public’s eye.

The composer banked on both aspects of his national popularity in order to advance his own musical reputation. In the same letter to his father, his attention turns to scheduling performances for his adoring public, as he alters his compositions to meet the national taste: “I have significantly changed and improved the Hebrides [Overture, which he wrote upon visiting Scotland in 1829]; it will be rehearsed for the first time at the Philharmonic tomorrow morning, and performed on Monday. On Friday I am conducting the Midsummer Night’s Dream in Vaughan’s concert” (184-185). In the second part of his letter, the composer notes how he is using his celebrity status in England: to schedule his own complete works, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is telling, as, in his 1829 letters, the composer pointed out how British audiences had an attention span only for abridged lengthy works. The implication is that audiences and performers have both improved in the three years since the composer’s first visits to the island. More importantly, though, Mendelssohn’s celebrity had, by the 1830s, given him enough credibility among the British that he has free reign over choosing and conducting his work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The composer’s visits to England thus left an indelible mark on the nation that had been considered music-less, for after his tours, a home-grown school of British compositional practice emerged in the late 1830s and early 1840s, which took Mendelssohn’s practices and expanded upon them in the search for a home-grown, authentically-British musical sound. The composer foresaw just this vision for England’s musical future. In his last letter from England, on 15 June 1832, he notes that

I must come back to this country again soon, for I have very remarkable plans pertaining thereto, which I shall not unveil until a week after my return. It is very good to be here, though, and such friendly people and pretty girls are nowhere else to be found. It is very pleasant to be able to feel oneself so much at home when abroad, but when I am truly at home, things ought to feel a bit different indeed. [186]

The composer was never to return to the nation, but his plans, for helping the British find a musical style for themselves, were to be picked up within the days and years that followed, all in the name of Mendelssohn and, ironically, national musical autonomy.

Works Cited

Burton, Nigel.The Blackwell History of Music in Britain: Volume 5: The Romantic Age, 1800-1914. Ed. Nicholas Temperley.London: Blackwell Reference, 1988.

Felix Mendelssohn: A Life in Letters. Ed. Rudolf Elvers. Trans. Craig Tomlinson. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1986.

Schonberg, Harold.The Lives of the Great Composers.Third edition.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Last modified 21 June 2017